Spotlight on The Gaelic Background of Old English Poetry Before Bede

The cover image of The Gaelic Background of Old English Poetry Before Bede, by Colin Ireland: Cover image of The Gaelic Background of Old English Poetry Before Bede: a carved stone Celtic cross, in front of a leafy background, with the title in tan on a black background.
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The earliest vernacular literatures of medieval Western Europe were produced in Britain and Ireland in Old English, Gaelic, and Brittonic languages. Our Anglophone world privileges Old English literature. However, as I demonstrate in my book The Gaelic Background of Old English Poetry before Bede, Old English is neither the earliest nor most extensive vernacular literature in the archipelago and it certainly did not evolve in isolation. In fact, with notable exceptions such as Beowulf, Old English can be characterized as a literature of translation derived from identifiable, typically Latin, sources.

Since the modern insular Celtic languages—that is, Scottish/Irish Gaelic and Welsh—are minority languages, their rich medieval vernacular literatures are overlooked or undervalued. This is especially true of Gaelic, which by the late seventh century had created a copious bilingual literate culture, in both Latin and the vernacular. That literature encompassed both secular and ecclesiastical subject matter. There are far more named poets, whether historical or mythic, in the Gaelic literary tradition than in Old English and Anglo-Latin. Vernacular Gaelic poets underwent formal training and enjoyed professional status codified in the law-tracts. A class of ecclesiastical scholar, referred to as sapiens, developed in Ireland in the seventh century. Of the six earliest sapientes to whom surviving texts can be attributed, three wrote in Latin and three wrote in the vernacular.

Anglo-Latin texts from the late seventh and early eighth centuries by Aldhelm, Bede, Stephen of Ripon, and Felix of Crowland, as well as anonymous hagiographers and monastic chroniclers, confirm the extensive interactions of Anglo-Saxons and Gaels. Unfortunately, few modern scholars examine the evidence provided by Anglo-Latin sources of the cultural relationships with Gaelic and Brittonic neighbors. They have, instead, concentrated on continental contacts and influence.

The scholarship surrounding Bede’s account of the first recorded Old English poet, Cædmon (Historia Ecclesiastica [HE] iv 24), is a case in point. Scholars of Old English literature have no clear context for the story as related by Bede, from either other Germanic traditions or from Latinate sources. There is a tendency to refer to Cædmon’s production of poetry as a “miracle.” However, anyone familiar with the vernacular poetic traditions of the Britons and the Gaels, especially the earlier and more plentiful Gaelic sources, will see Cædmon as following methods frequently recorded in those traditions. There is nothing miraculous in Bede’s account. Cædmon performed as Gaelic poets frequently did.

In the crucial century from the foundation of Lindisfarne in 635 to the death of Bede in 735, Northumbria was ruled for more than 50 years by Gaelic educated, fluent Gaelic-speaking kings—Oswald (634-642), Oswiu (642-670), and Aldfrith (685-704)—who accessed Gaelic learned culture. King Oswald introduced the mission from Iona lead by Bishop Aidan who founded Lindisfarne. Bishops from Iona (Aidan, Fínán, Colmán) enjoyed thirty years of success in Northumbria copiously recounted in Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica.  Within decades of his death a saint’s cult had developed around the figure of Oswald.

King Oswiu oversaw the "synod" of Whitby (664) that resulted in two seemingly contradictory outcomes: the foundation of the school at Canterbury (ca. 669) and the establishment of Mayo of the Saxons (ca. 673). Modern scholars highlight the Canterbury school’s continental affiliations, while overlooking the fact that Mayo of the Saxons was established through the same mother-house and by the very bishop that had been rejected at Whitby (HE iv 4). Oswiu thought that “nothing was better than what the Gaels taught” (HE iii 25). Bede cited the bishoprics of Fínán and Colmán (651-664), the middle of Oswiu’s reign, as a time when Anglo-Saxons of all social classes availed themselves of free education among the Gaels (HE iii 27). That access to Gaelic learning can only reflect Oswiu’s purposeful, determined educational policy in the time of the early sapientes.

Oswiu’s son, King Aldfrith sapiens was a noted scholar among the Gaels. Aldfrith’s appreciation and dissemination of Aldhelm’s Epistola ad Acircium and Adomnán’s De locis sanctis reflect the depth of his learning as a sapiens. Nevertheless, all texts attributed to him are in the Gaelic vernacular. He had a working relationship with Abbess Ælfflæd of Whitby throughout his reign and was buried at Whitby. Aldfrith sapiens is associated with Bangor in northern Ireland, a monastery steeped in bilingual intellectual culture, both ecclesiastical and secular.

As I argue in The Gaelic Background of Old English Poetry before Bede, the bilingual literary culture of the Gaels provides contemporary context for quandaries in Old English such as the syncretic nature of Beowulf or the “miracle” of Cædmon’s performance.

the gaelic background of old english poetry before bede

Cover image of The Gaelic Background of Old English Poetry Before Bede: a carved stone Celtic cross, in front of a leafy background, with the title in tan on a black background.The Gaelic Background of Old English Poetry Before Bede

By Colin A. Ireland

This ground-breaking study displays the transformations created by the growth of vernacular literatures and bilingual intellectual cultures.  Gaelic missionaries and educational opportunities helped shape the Northumbrian “Golden Age,” its manuscripts, and hagiography and the writings of Aldhelm and Bede.

ISBN: 978-1-50152-028-0 (clothbound), 978-1-50151-387-9 (PDF), 978-1-50151-393-0 (EPUB), © 2022